“I’ve been waiting for Andy for at least 15 years,” says Vera Schwarcz, the Mansfield Freeman Professor of East Asian Studies at Wesleyan.
An East Asian studies major and a Wesleyan Freeman Asian Scholar, Youlieguo “Andy” Zhou ’10 is the author of Mansfield Freeman: Born Under a Different Star, a 446–page senior thesis and biography of the alumnus for whom Wesleyan’s Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies is named. Soon after Mansfield Freeman’s Wesleyan graduation in 1916, he had taken his young bride to China, where they had lived for 23 years. Not only did Freeman help develop the insurance industry in that country, he also worked on famine relief aid and studied Chinese philosophers.
Schwarcz, a friend of the late scholar, entrepreneur, and sinophile, had long been hoping for a thesis student to be intrigued by the vast collection of Freeman papers, all primary sources, held in the archives at the Mansfield Freeman Center.
“It was first gratitude,” explains Zhou, of his inspiration to write about the senior member of the family that has shaped Wesleyan’s Asian program. “Then it became a series of surprises. I had expected to find a person who went to China, earned his fortune, and because of his connection with China, donated money; that’s all I expected.
“Then I discovered a series of fascinating things, especially the famine relief work that he did. It was especially interesting to read his diaries, where he was writing his thoughts and feelings about the situation in China.
“It surprised me, too, that Houghton Freeman ’43 [his son and one of the current Freeman trustees] grew up speaking Chinese. I have American friends in China who have been living there for decades, but they don’t speak a word of Chinese.”
Schwarcz was delighted to see that Zhou fully grasped Freeman’s ironic sense of humor. She also began to see her student developing further intellectual depth, even spending time in monasteries, as Freeman had done. “‘Oh, he’s making room for reflections,’ I told myself,” she recalls. “And I saw that the generosity Andy was able to bring to Freeman’s complex religiosity was informed by his consciously choosing to spend time in religious spaces.”
The name of the thesis is based on a excerpt from Freeman’s diary, as he described listening to a gong in a Chinese monastery and observing the monks in their daily tasks. “Had I been born under a different star, I would have been one of these monks,” he had written.
Zhou has in mind a goal for his work: “I think by reading about Mansfield Freeman, it kind of humbles a person.
“Mr. Freeman said, ‘People who visit in China for a week want to write a book. But I’ve been in China 22 years and I can’t write a book. I think the more you stay in the country, the more multi–faceted it becomes.’ This certainly encourages us all to make more of an effort before we reach hasty conclusions.”
Zhou and Schwarcz confer on how best to describe what they admire in the man.
“Moral character doesn’t quite convey it,” says Schwarcz. “The Chinese character is ‘wei ren’—something that makes a person distinctively refined; it’s the distinctive integrity of a person.”
“He had something else, beyond being merely a businessman in China; he brought this integrity, this wei ren,” says Zhou.
“And then there was Mansfield Freeman’s fascination with Chinese philosophy. He began to ignite; there was no way he could leave China. He was trying to understand it, and himself through it,” adds Schwarcz.
“Wesleyan has been enriched by the Freeman Scholars. Andy’s thesis is a huge way of giving back,” says Schwarcz. The two have presented a copy of the thesis as a gift to current foundation trustees and leaders, Houghton Freeman ’43; wife Doreen, Hon. ’03; and their son Graeme ’77.
Zhou graduated with high honors on May 22, with the Freeman Prize for Excellence in East Asian Studies. After a summer at home in China, he will start graduate school at Berkeley, studying political science and history. His mentor is pleased that his graduate work will encompass both fields.
As for the thesis, it remains alive in both their lives: Wesleyan University Press has placed it under consideration for publication.
To read an excerpt of Mansfield Freeman: Born Under a Different Star, by Youlieguo “Andy” Zhou ’10, see wesleyan.edu/magazine.